Caution: Crisis in Chernobyl

“In Germany, when Hitler and his regime brought about so much misery and suffering, they recognized it as a crime. And they strive to make sure it never happens again. So why are the doings of the nuclear industry not recognized for what they are?” — Natalia Mansurova

It was late into the night on April 26th, 1986 when the first explosion occurred. A couple moments passed, and then another explosion. The small town of Pripyat was asleep. A clock would have read nearly 1:30 A.M. Twenty minutes after the explosion, firefighters entered the scene, with no idea of what awaited them.

What happened?

That night, a power surge caused by running the power at low power yielded a steam explosion. The Nuclear Energy Institute reports that this “was the product of a severely flawed Soviet-era reactor design, combined with human error.” The plant also lacked an appropriate ‘containment structure.’ Radiation filled the air. The World Nuclear Association estimates that approximately 5,200 petabecquerels were released.

For many, Chernobyl once stood as evidence of scientific innovation and advancement. According to this interview and article, the Soviet Union designed it with the ability to heat a city with over a million people. The plant was marketed as a job opportunity for young people, and the small town of Pripyat was portrayed as idyllic. When asked if the plant was safe, the Minister of Power and Electrification of Ukraine said, “The odds of a meltdown are one in 10,000 years.”

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In this picture, the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant is visible in the center-right. This bridge earned the nickname “Bridge of Death” as on-looking villagers were exposed to critical levels of radiation. Photo from: Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY.

This is perhaps some of the reason why the explosion’s impacts were so shocking. The situation was simply catastrophic. Many in immediate contact with the radiation died from radiation poisoning or other illnesses linked to radiation. By May 17th, 1986, thirteen people had died. This included at least four firefighters. By May 29th, 1986, the Los Angeles Times reported that nineteen had died and thirty-five were severely affected; however, 300 “received significant doses of radiation.” The effects of radiation only increased as cases of thyroid cancer increase. The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that it saw four thousand cases of thyroid cancer by 2005, the time of its posting.

In the first month after the explosion, the Soviet Union’s response was terribly slow. The town of Pripyat itself was not evacuated until the afternoon of April 27th, 1986. Additionally, it failed to alert the international community immediately. Radiation decreased as the radius from Chernobyl increased, but it was still present. Radioactive material floated through the air, but the Soviet Union said nothing. It was not until early morning on April 28th, 1986 that the international community realized something was wrong. A Swedish power plant employee discovered radiation on his shoes.

Finally, on May 14th of that same year, Mikhail Gorbachev finally released an official statement on behalf of the Soviet Union. Although it temporarily placated the situation, many Soviets felt distrust towards the government. To change this, Gorbachev advocated for glasnost (or openness) and released documents related to the nuclear explosion. However, this ultimately led to more problems as people considered other ways in which their government censored their knowledge. Gorbachev’s Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “It was glasnost that destroyed the Soviet Union.

For people who are interested in firsthand accounts of the Chernobyl disaster, there are many sources. This interview is a clip from “Bell Tolls for Chernobyl.” It was released in 1987, and it focuses on B. Chugunov. He was part of the first reactor crew. In this interview with the Pulitzer Center, Natalia Manzurova shared her story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She worked as a nuclear engineer for the Soviet Union, and it was part of her responsibilities to assess and “clean-up” the radiation left. Both contribute to our understanding of the psychological effects of this disaster.

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According to the source, this photo was taken eighty kilometers from the explosion site. Photo from: Igor Kostin, “Ukraine, 1989” 1989, Seventeen Moments.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. ejrhodes5 says:

    Lily, great job analyzing Chernobyl and its implications for the Soviet Union! The amount of sources you found and used is really impressive too – nice post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lilyfair says:

      I thought this issue was just so fascinating as I considered the ways in which the explosion signified some of the darker elements of nuclear power. I think one can also see how Japan’s immediate reactions to Fukushima was a learned response following Chernobyl. According to the World Nuclear Association (http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/fukushima-accident.aspx), Fukushima had no illnesses or deaths related to radiation. This is largely attributed to its early and thorough evacuations.

      Like

  2. A. Nelson says:

    Agree with Emma! Your account is sobering in its focus — and the detail you bring to recounting how the regime’s response made the devastation so much worse is really powerful. Speaking of powerful, that image of the soldier withthe gas mask….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lilyfair says:

      Every time I read about Chernobyl, it always just breaks my heart! I know that there were quite a few reasons for the delayed response of the Soviets, but some people paid dearly for it. By 2006, a large number of children had contracted thyroid cancer in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. None were even alive during the explosion, so it is even harder to hear.

      I thought the picture was wonderful too, and it is amazing to consider just how far the radiation reached. According to the source, this image was taken 80 kilometers (or 50 miles) away. For comparison, Roanoke is around 44 miles away.

      Like

  3. saneg5 says:

    Lily,

    I thought the quote you used at the beginning was a great addition to your post, as well as the variety of pictures and sources you used, especially the interview! Have you heard of the book “Voices of Chernobyl”? It is a really powerful read; the author interviews a lot of people whose stories are truly heartbreaking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lilyfair says:

      I’ve never read that book, but thank you for the recommendation! I think that interviews and firsthand accounts are my favorite ways to study history as they are more relatable.

      Like

  4. alicjakara says:

    Hey Lily! i really enjoyed reading your post. What a powerful image! Same with the quote and overall feel. Very captivating. I can not believe the underwhelming actions that leaders took in this situation. We had been playing with nuclear technology and radiation for so long without truly taking the proper measures- I wonder if this was a wake up call.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lilyfair says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed my post! I spent a lot of time looking into it just because I found it so deeply interesting. My feelings oscillate between shock and anger! It appears that it was a turning point for the Soviet Union. From my understanding, the US had standards that more-or-less prevent situations like this from occurring. However, some other places we can see its impact include the Fukushima power plant following the 2011 earthquake in Japan. The government moved its people away from the site very, very quickly.

      Like

  5. Dear Lily,
    I really enjoyed reading your blogpost. You gave us many valuable details about the incident at Chernobyl. It breaks my heart, too, when I read about this, but I think people should know what really happened. Great job!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lilyfair says:

      Hey Lara,

      Thank you for the kind words! It was really important to me that I describe this situation in full as there were many key details that made this story more poignant. I also think it’s important that everyone is informed of the full story!

      Like

  6. jndickey says:

    Reading this post in conjunction with the movie, Babushkas of Chernobyl, you can really get a sense of how devastating this event was and is. It was devastating not only for the native Ukrainians but also peoples across the planet who felt the radioactive winds or sympathized with the uninformed citizens of a dishonest government. The picture you chose also resonates and gives a good visual of the type of environment that is left after this event. Thank you for the informative content.

    Like

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